LOS ANGELES – “I can’t tell you what was in my pants! All I can tell you is that it wasn’t mine,” Washington chuckles as she settles in for press interviews to promote her latest project where she plays a pre-operation transsexual.
Best known for her Oscar worthy portrayal of Kay Amin, the wife of the former Ugandan president Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” Washington is one of the few artists who has earned the respect of her industry peers.
A versatile actress who literally absorbs whatever character she is portraying, she talks to Samantha Ofole-Prince about her latest onscreen challenge.
Q: “Life is Hot in Cracktown” is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Buddy Giovinazzo and paints a very disturbing picture of a world filled with drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and transsexuals, what did you think when you first read the script?
KW: It intimidated me as an actor mostly because I thought it’s a handful. I’ve played a prostitute before and I have played a drug addict. She’s a drug addict prostitute who also happens to be a transwoman in a complicated relationship which is a lot. I also thought it was really brave and wonderful that this writer/director had the courage to take this person who we think of as a weirdo and make us realize that she is fundamentally a human being in the same ways that we are. She really tugged at my heart and I felt like I didn’t know anything about her world.
Q: Being a woman playing a male to female transsexual can’t be an easy task, what sort of research did you do to perfect the part?
KW: I am big on research and love doing research, but beyond reading is meeting with experts in the field and meeting with people in the community. When I did “The Last King of Scotland,” I surrounded myself with a group of Ugandan women who I was close to and who would guide me in the portrayal. For this, I met this incredible transwoman named Valerie Spencer and she was my consultant in the film. She was very generous with me about her life and introduced me to a lot of women in the community who helped me to understand my character Mary Beth.
Q:What was the most important lesson you learned about male to female transsexuals?
KW: The biggest thing I learned is that these are individuals who are born as women. They are women but their biology/anatomy has betrayed them in some way and that’s the fundamental thing to understand. I am not playing a man who wants to be a woman, I am playing a woman who has been born with a physical inconsistency so my body doesn’t reflect my emotional truth. That’s key to understanding who this person is.
Q: What was the hardest part and most challenging aspect of playing Mary Beth?
KW: She lives a really complicated life so it was a lot to hold on to and assimilate. A lot of times when you are playing a character there’s one or two issues, and this is a woman who is dealing with poverty and a complicated relationship. She’s dealing with her identity as a transwoman and a drug addiction and is coming to terms with her past and a father who wont’ accept her. So keeping all those plates spinning was the hardest thing.
Q: Whilst filming “The Last King of Scotland” you developed a genuine love for Africa. Have you been back to visit?
KW: Sadly I have not, but I would love to return. I do a lot of work with an organization called V-Day which is to end violence and we have a safe house in Kenya that if I can get to this August I might.
Q: You have quite a few projects lined up for the rest of the year, what are some of these projects called?
KW: I have a big DreamWorks comedy called “A Thousand Words” which comes out this year and another called “Mother and Child” with Naomi Watts and Annette Bening and I am starting a film called “Stringbean and Marcus” in Philadelphia and then Broadway. I am doing the new David Mamet play that he is directing called “Race”.
Q: You were very active in the Obama campaign. Are you involved with any other political projects within his camp?
KW: I love our president! I am so thrilled to be living in this country right now. There is no official position at this point. I was a surrogate for the campaign and I am open to being of service in anyway I can be and I think he is doing a fantastic job.
Samantha Ofole-Prince is a professional entertainment journalist who frequently covers events in the Los Angeles area and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo – courtesy of Royalty Image (top), Lighting Media (bottom)